What does it take to get the people who work in social housing really inspired?
Well, at the Housing Technology 2015 conference this month, Barry Marlow and I both had a really good go at it. Barry is one of those charismatic, dyed in the wool housing types who work with housing providers to help them think commercially while acting socially. He would be the first to admit he is the Yin to my Yang, as a well-known blogger about the practical elements of social housing IT and how to overcome those ‘rocks in the road’ that always crop up on the type of change and transformation journey proposed by Barry.
Indeed, thinking commercially is a somewhat alien notion in housing and often provokes comments, discussion and fury in many quarters. However, we both believe that the sector could be seriously sleepwalking into choppy waters if we don’t tackle some of the big issues that tend to be swept under the carpet and avoided thus far. Welfare reform and universal credit, however painfully slow, could well be our undoing once the previously guaranteed 70 per cent of our income is paid direct to tenants.
For years we have kept processes pretty much the same and only tinkered around the edges in most cases. Barry preaches the mantra of thinking more about what we are looking to achieve, rather than clinging to the ‘way we have always done it’. He is controversial and, frankly, that is the point. Rather than adding a few fields to that tenancy sign-up form, start from scratch and work out what we really want to achieve.
Everyone else we deal with knows us so much better than we understand our own customers. Amazon constantly reminds us that we ‘might like this’, because we ‘previously bought or downloaded that’. The real world works like that because companies get closer to their customers and users that way. These are tricks we need to learn and pretty damn quick. We need to know more about our households, their needs, how we can reach out to them and engage them in our communities.
You can understand why Barry and I get agitated and animated. From Barry’s perspective, our IT is just not up to it. My perspective, on the other hand, is that we spend thousands of pounds on pretty good CRM modules and most RSLs struggle to maintain even 75 per cent accuracy for contact numbers. That’s clearly not the fault of IT or systems; it comes back to poor management allowing it to happen among those staff who should be collecting this stuff. Clearly, for once, this is not the fault of the IT team either (phew, not often you can say that!).
So what targets did Barry and I have on our dartboard? Well, better control of tenant arrears was one and reward schemes were another.
Barry is very keen to look at our neighbourhoods as little enterprises or franchises. In that way, we can look at what we spend, what we receive in rent, how desirable the area is and how much crime and ASB exists there. When banks grant us loans, sell us insurance, or target us for credit cards, this is what they look at. Social landlords are missing a trick by not thinking in this joined up way. Indeed, this is what a Living Will or Asset Sustainability exercise does; it reveals the value and risks in and around our stock.
The banks and financial institutions may have a lot to answer for, but they can certainly teach us a lot about how to use technology to predict when a mortgage or credit card payment might be missed and how to react quickly to resolve it. Social housing offers a premium solution at a bargain price. We need to borrow the clothes of others, to act in a social manner.
See how you feel about some of these ideas… Instead of taking our tenants through a NOSP process, how about exercising our right to recover debt in the small claims court while keeping people in their homes? For rechargeable repairs, we are notoriously bad at collecting; why not simply sell these to a factoring organisation at a discount to their value? As for tenants dropping into arrears, we need to nip that behaviour in the bud. It’s been proven that areas who have already tested universal credit with housing benefit paid direct have encountered up to 90 per cent arrears on that element. If you think about it, it’s easy to predict this being the case. If I accidently paid £300 into your bank account this month that you were not used to having, would it not tempt you to treat yourself? For that segment of our tenants, could we not automate calls to urge them to let their landlord help them save their home?
Many housing people that Barry and I have suggested this to are clearly horrified. “Our tenants wouldn’t answer the phone”, “That must contravene data protection”, “It’s just not cricket, it’s not what we do!” Barry would probably reply, “Where’s that long grass you want to knock that into again?”
The fact is this approach does work. It does generate incoming appointment requests, and most tenants appreciate anything that helps them to manage their finances.
These methods work and the automation is not expensive, and it’s far more cost-effective than sending letters at 93p a time that no one reads at any rate. My Mancunian approach is “ask for a free trial and find out for yourself. Get the suppliers to put their money where their mouth is”. A very ‘Northern’ approach, but that is the best way to check it out. We do need more opportunities to dip our toe in the water, with less of a commitment.
Reward schemes are another interesting area. Should we reward people for doing what they should be doing anyway and could that change behaviour?
I would defy anyone reading this article to state that they are not involved in some type of reward scheme. By that, I mean Tesco Clubcards, fuel cards, M&S and credit card spending points, cashback, Quidco and so on. We all know it changes behaviour. With the universal credit changes, we need every tool we can get in our armoury.
If rewards only helped us with a tenth of our arrears, that would still be a big contribution.
A recent survey I mentioned at the Housing Technology 2015 conference showed that vouchers for local goods and services was top of the rewards that tenants said they preferred. 92 per cent of one landlord’s tenants were positive to the concept. What’s better for us as landlords than investing back in our own communities (or franchises, to use Barry’s term) and encouraging our residents to do the same?
While Barry and I enjoy a good knock-about act, we both agree on a more serious message; we care about social housing and the people it supports and we want to use every means at our (and your) disposal to stay relevant in these changing times.
Barry Marlow is a housing consultant with Friends Critical. Tony Smith is an independent IT consultant in the sector and prolific housing blogger as ThatHousingITguy. Both work together in the Get Real Partnership.